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Sexual Offences Articles

Can you go to jail for looking at a website in the UK?

The advent of the internet was undoubtedly a wonderful thing, but with just about anybody being able to upload or create things online nowadays, many worrisome websites could get you in trouble if you visit or interact with them. If you’re reading this article, you may be concerned that something you have looked at online might land you in trouble. Understandably, if you have a somewhat questionable search history, you are also likely worried about what potential crimes you may have committed or what kinds of punishments you might face if you are convicted of something. In this article, we’ll explore the law around illegal websites in the UK and answer some of the most common questions we get.

What is it illegal to view online in the UK?

It is illegal to view a wide range of material online in the UK, and you might be surprised how many different online activities could get you into trouble.

There are some very obvious categories of illegal behaviour online, including viewing and sharing child pornography and extremely violent or graphic content. It also makes sense that it is an offence for someone to access websites that contain information or instructions about illegal activities such as terrorism, fraud, or money laundering. Likewise, accessing pirated material (such as films or music) and downloading copyrighted material without permission is another widely known category of illegal behaviour.

Outside of these common knowledge offences, you can also be prosecuted for:

  • posting hate speech on social media or other websites
  • encouraging someone to hurt themselves or other people, including by advocating the use of drugs
  • watching a film that is being streamed live from a cinema
  • using the internet to spy on someone, such as through their laptop camera or webcam

As for the precise offence you might be charged with, these can be incredibly far-ranging. For example, the Criminal Justice Act 1988 covers the offence of possession of child pornography, and if found guilty under that Act you face a maximum sentence of 5 years imprisonment and inclusion on the Sex Offenders Register. For intellectual property offences (such as illegal streaming), you could be prosecuted under any of the numerous intellectual property statutes (like the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988, the Trade Marks Act 1994, the Video Recordings Act 2010, the Intellectual Property Act 2014, or the Digital Economy Act 2017).

Can I go to jail for looking at illegal websites in the UK?

Yes, you can be prosecuted and sentenced to a prison term in the UK if you are found accessing or viewing illegal websites. The offence you are charged with might relate to the simple act of viewing the website, or it might be that your viewing of the website is used against you as evidence of another offence. The severity of your sentence will depend on the nature of the website and associated offence, as well as any other criminal activities that may have been committed.

For example, if you are accessing an illegal website intending to commit a crime such as fraud or money laundering, then the sentence is likely to be much more severe than posting a thoughtless comment that is alleged to have contained minor racial abuse. It is important to note that the law in this area is constantly evolving and can differ depending on the website, who was involved, what harm was caused, and many other factors.

Can my search history get me in trouble?

Yes, your search history can get you into trouble if it is linked to illegal activity. Although the police will usually need a warrant to access your search and browsing history, there are instances where this information may be accessible without a warrant. For example, if you have been accused of an offence related to accessing or viewing illegal material online, then your search history may be used as evidence against you.

If you are ever in doubt about what is and isn’t allowed online, it is always best to err on the side of caution and not access any site that could be considered illegal or inappropriate. It is also a good idea to ensure that your browsing history is regularly cleared so that there is no trace of your online activity. By taking these steps, you can help to ensure that you don’t end up in trouble with the law.

What happens if you accidentally search for illegal things?

If you accidentally search for illegal material, the first thing to do is to stop viewing the content and delete it from your device. It is important not to share or download any of this material – even if it was a mistake – as this could still be considered a criminal offence.

In some cases, it might be worth informing the police about the content you have accidentally found, as this could help to prevent it from reaching other people. If the police do decide to investigate further, then you may be asked to provide information about how and why you came across such material, as well as any details of where it was stored or shared.

It is highly unlikely that you will face criminal charges for accidentally searching for illegal material, but it is important to be aware that this can still happen in some cases. If you ever find yourself in this situation, then it is best to speak with a legal professional as soon as possible.

What should you not search for online?

Numerous types of content might get you in trouble online, and it is generally best to avoid any website or platform that is involved in the display, sharing, or creation of the following:

  • Child pornography
  • Extreme or violent activity, including sexual activity
  • Revenge porn
  • Malicious communications, including forums that promote racial or religious abuse
  • Illegal activities, such as money laundering, fraud, terrorism, or gang activity
  • Libellous websites that spread ‘fake news’ or other hateful or hurtful content
  • Illegally copied digital content such as books, magazines, films, music, and podcasts

Can the UK government track my Google searches?

The UK government does not have the power to track your specific Google searches, as this would be a breach of your right to privacy. However, law enforcement agencies can access a limited amount of data from the search engine to investigate certain types of crime or illegal activity.

For example, if an individual is suspected of accessing illegal material, then their search history could be used to prove that this activity took place. Similarly, the police may use a person’s search history to determine whether they have been looking at websites that promote terrorism or other criminal behaviour.

Is it illegal to clear your search history?

Generally speaking, no, it is not illegal to clear your search history. Indeed, it is good practice to regularly delete your browsing data so that it does not fall into the wrong hands. However, there may be certain circumstances in which you are required to keep a record of your searches for legal reasons. For example, if you are under investigation for a crime then it is essential that you do not delete any details of your online activity as this may be viewed as the destruction of evidence, which could get you into even more trouble.

Can a website spy on you?

Yes, websites can track your online activity and can even access personal data such as your name and address. The easiest way to avoid this is to make sure that you are only visiting secure sites and not clicking on any suspicious links. It is also important to be aware of what type of information a website might be asking for to make sure that you are not giving away any personal information unnecessarily.

To be extra safe online, follow these tips:

  • Regularly update your security software to protect yourself from malicious activity.
  • Monitor the websites that you visit and make sure that only reputable sites are accessed.
  • Only enter personal information when absolutely necessary, as this can be used for identity theft or other online scams.
  • Use a secure password manager to store your passwords and other sensitive data.
  • Be aware of phishing scams, where someone may try to trick you into providing personal information or clicking on malicious links.
  • Do not download or share illegal material online as this can result in serious criminal charges.

Where to get more help with potentially illegal web searches?

Even though the internet can be a great resource for finding information, it is important to remember that it can also contain illegal content, which could land you in trouble if you access or view it. If you are facing an investigation or prosecution due to your online activities, you need to get the advice of a qualified and experienced criminal defence solicitor as soon as possible. You also need to find one that specialises in this relatively complex and niche area of the law. The team at Stuart Miller Solicitors is perfect for this. Contact us today for a no-obligation and 100% non-judgemental conversation about your options.


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